Poets and even ordinary people make much of dew. They point to it on grass and sing its praises on spiderwebs. Words like “silver” and “gossamer” and “a thousand glittering diamonds” are thrown about whenever dew comes up, often by people who should know better.
Occasionally, they will even go so far as to speak of “nymph tears sparkling on the grass” or some such. When it has gotten to this stage, they generally need to be sat down and given a stern talking-to, and perhaps a settling cup of tea.
What these people forget, or never knew, is that dew is real and solid and if you are sleeping out of doors, you can go to bed warm and dry and wake up cold and soaking wet and not at all inclined to admire the sparkling of a thousand dewy diamonds.
The only good thing about waking up cold and soaking wet is that you don’t much feel like going back to sleep.
Summer sat up. Her neck hurt where it had been wedged on the tree root and her feet hurt and her calves hurt and the heavy muscles on top of her thighs hurt from nearly two days of walking.
If she had been at home, she would have tried to convince her mother that she was feeling much too miserable to go to school. But she wasn’t at home, and two of the little valet-birds were pressing a mug of hot tea into her hands.
“I’m cold,” she grumbled. “And my feet hurt.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” said Reginald cheerfully. “You go walking about on them instead of flying.”
She tried again. “I may die.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so. Nowhere near sticking your spoon in the wall just yet.”
When you are looking to have a good whine, this sort of response is unsatisfactory. She tried the weasel instead, but he gave her a weaselly look and said, “What do you expect me to do about it?” so she stopped and drank the tea instead.
She thought, down in her very private heart of hearts, that she wanted to go home.
She felt immediately guilty for thinking it. In books, nobody who found themselves in a fantasy world ever wanted to go home. (Well, nobody but Eustace Clarence Scrubb, in Narnia, and you weren’t supposed to agree with him.)
She was definitely not feeling grateful enough for being on a superb magical adventure. She told herself this sternly several times and then wanted to cry, because it doesn’t help to yell at people who are cold and wet, even when the person yelling at you is you.
But the fire was warm, and the valet-birds built it up until it was warmer yet, and Summer crouched down next to it and felt the heat on her face.
There were scones. They were rather hard, but they tasted good. Summer began to feel a bit better. Her shirt was dry and clean (if smelling a little of campfires) and putting it on made her feel better still, and then the valet-birds began ferrying more blackberries in from a distant bush, and she started to think that perhaps she didn’t want to go home quite yet after all.
After all, when you go home in the books, sometimes they make you forget. And I don’t want to forget this.
She made sure to say, “Thank you,” to each valet-bird, as it perched on her finger and dropped a berry into the palm of her hand. She felt very grown-up saying it, and each bird dipped its beak in acknowledgement and chirped before it flew away.
The forest was different this morning. Fog puddled in the hollows and lay like milk across the road. Moisture dripped off the trees, onto the pine needles and the tree roots and the back of Summer’s neck.
They walked for most of the morning. After an hour, Summer took off the blanket and looped it over her arm. The air was cool and tingly, but walking had warmed her up, and even her sore feet didn’t feel quite so sore anymore.
The valet-birds had spent part of the night redesigning her shoelace scabbard for the cheese-sword. The knots were much neater now and it didn’t bang into her thigh when she walked.
It was getting on time to stop for lunch when the valet-birds suddenly halted and the weasel said, “Hsst!”
Summer tensed. Was it Grub again?
“Eh?” said Reginald, who had been practicing his aerial waltz.
“Something up there, to the left,” said the weasel. “Big. And jangling like metal.”
“Elk?” asked Reginald. “We do get ‘em up here.”
The weasel shook his head. “Not stomping. Padding. But not very far.”
Reginald and Summer looked at each other helplessly. Summer put her hand on the hilt of the cheese-sword.
“Well,” said Reginald. “No sense being pudding-hearted!” He took to the air and flew forward determinedly.
Summer took a deep breath. It made sense for Reginald to go ahead—he could fly, after all—but he also barely came up to her waist and he wasn’t terribly sensible. She hurried after him.
Reginald fluttered down to the ground. He stopped with his beak open and his wings half-extended in surprise.
It was a wolf.
When Summer had been nine years old, her mother took her to the zoo. It was a very good zoo, and the animals were behind deep moats and high fences, so there was no chance that they would escape and rampage through the crowd. Summer had been enchanted by the spotted skunk and the clowning of the otters and the comical faces of the puffins—but the wolves and lions and bears had disappointed her.
The problem was that they were so small.
The black bears weren’t much bigger than humans. The lions looked nothing like Aslan. Their hips and shoulders were so narrow that you couldn’t imagine riding one anyway.
And pictures in books always showed wolves as huge, but the wolves in their enclosure looked like rather large dogs, no bigger than Buddy the chocolate Lab down the street. When you looked at these wolves, sleeping contentedly on their rocks, you could believe the signs that said that wolves were shy and avoided people.
Summer had gone home, very thoughtful, and put her book with Little Red Riding Hood in it behind some others on the shelf. She felt embarrassed for the story.
And now here she was, in a fairy tale world. If she made it home, Summer thought that perhaps she would pull the book out again, because here was a wolf worthy of the name.
It was enormous. It was easily the size of a pony, with paws like dinner plates and a skull as broad as a frying pan. It met her eyes with icy green ones, and it did not look shy or evasive at all.
The only reason that Summer did not turn around and run immediately was because the wolf was in a cage.
The cage had shining metal bars and an enormous ring at the top with a rope through it. It looked as if the wolf had been walking between two trees and the cage had dropped down over it. There was a bit of a gap at the bottom where a tree root lifted it, and the ground had been clawed and scrabbled into dirt around it.
“Have mercy,” said the wolf, staring into Summer’s eyes. “Let me out.”
“Oh!” said Summer.
It was not that the wolf talked. The weasel had made it very clear that she could expect all sorts of creatures to talk. But she had never heard a voice like that, so deep and growling and wild, threaded through with a howling music.
She wanted to help him. Creatures with voices like that did not belong in cages. Still—
“Have mercy,” said the wolf again. “If it was not you who put me here, then help me.”
Reginald hopped closer. “Steady, now,” he said. “I don’t like to see a dirty trick like this played on anyone—for that’s a trap you’re in, sure enough—but how do we know you won’t come after us when you’re free?”
“I give you the word of a wolf,” said the wolf.
“Is that good?” asked Summer timidly.
“Not really,” said the weasel. “Wolves make no promises, except to each other.”
The wolf grinned. His teeth were as long as Summer’s fingers. “That is true,” he admitted.
“Well, we can’t leave him here,” said Summer. “He’ll starve!”
“He doesn’t look like he’s missed any meals lately,” said Reginald, eyeing the width of the wolf’s shoulders.
“I am not so worried about starving,” said the wolf. “But if I am still in this cage by nightfall, it will shatter my windows and burn my doors.”
None of this made any sense to Summer, but Reginald hopped a bit closer and examined the bars speculatively. “Hmm. Silver wash over iron, are they?” He tapped a bar with one claw.
He was standing in reach of the wolf’s jaws, if the beast sprang. Summer wanted to dart forward and grab him and pull him back, saying, “It’s not safe!”
She had opened her mouth and taken a half-step forward—
—and then she stopped as if she had run into an iron bar herself, because it was exactly what her mother would have done.
For one horrible moment, Summer felt as if she had gone down to the secret chamber of her heart and found her mother writing on its walls.
The wolf met her eyes with his own fierce, impossibly green ones, and Summer thought, I have to get him out. It doesn’t matter if he eats me. If I leave him here, I won’t feel like me any more.
The weasel stirred.
“You could flip that cage over if you wanted,” he said to the wolf. “One paw in that gap, and I don’t think it would stand for a moment. But you haven’t and you aren’t touching it, and the bars are made of silver…”
The wolf looked at the sky.
“You’re a were-wolf, aren’t you?” said Summer.
“No,” said the wolf. “I am a wolf and was born a wolf and will be a wolf until I die. I am a were-house.”
The wolf sighed. “No. A were-house. I am a wolf by day, and by night I turn into a rather pleasant cottage with white curtains.”
A great deal of Summer’s fear evaporated and she folded her arms and said, very grimly, “This is a pun, isn’t it?”
“Only by accident, I assure you,” said the wolf. “We wolves are prone to such maladies. A cousin of mine is a were-library, and another turns into a very large skylark on solstices.” He scuffed at the ground with his paw. “I believe the hunter meant to trap me and put a silver chain through my tongue and when I change tonight, I will be trapped in that form forever and can be sold on the real estate market.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” said Reginald. “Wouldn’t turn a rat over to the house-hunters.” He looked at Summer. “What do you think?”
Summer took a deep breath, and let it out. “If you promise you won’t eat us,” she said. “Promise as if we were wolves.”
The wolf stepped up to the bars and looked at her thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said. “I promise by tooth and marrow and bone. Show mercy to me and I will show it to you in return. There’s too little courage in the world to go eating it up.”
It seemed to be the best that they were going to get. Summer turned her thoughts to getting the wolf out of the cage.
“Do you think the valet-birds could lift it?” she asked.
Reginald shook his head. “Only one who could possibly lift that thing is him, and he can’t touch the silver, worse luck.”
“What if we had something to put between him and the silver?” asked Summer.
In the end they sacrificed the linen tablecloth, which made the valet birds very unhappy. They wrapped it around the lowest bar, by the gap, with many grumpy twitters, while Reginald shouted encouraging things like, “There’s a lad!” and, “Rightly done!” and the weasel kept an eye out in case the hunter should return.
When the bar was wrapped, Summer took a branch and wedged one end under the cage to use as a lever. She and Reginald threw their full weight against it, and the wolf got the linen-wrapped bar in his teeth.
“One,” said Reginald. “Two. Heave!”
The wolf’s neck muscles pulsed and the cage flipped over with a great crash. Bracken and rotten wood flew in all directions.
“Free!” cried the wolf. He shook himself and gasped air untainted by silver. “Free!”
Summer had bright spots in front of her eyes from pulling so hard on the lever. Bark had scraped across her palms. She sat down on a tree root.
When she looked up, the wolf was six inches away.
She swallowed hard.
“Mercy for mercy,” said the wolf, leaning forward. He touched his nose to her forehead. “My name is Glorious.”
“Summer,” said Summer, through a mouth gone dry.
“Summer. We would call a cub that, before it grew into its paws and its name.” He lolled his tongue out between teeth as long and white as stalagmites. “Now let us go from here, and tell me, human child, what brings you wandering in the woods with a bird and a weasel and the scent of crones about you?”
They left the cage. The wolf walked beside them. His shoulder came halfway up Summer’s ribcage, and his tail was longer than her arm.
It was unsettling to walk beside a wolf. She tried to watch the road, but she kept getting little glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and then her heart would hammer and her spine would tingle.
Summer tried to think of him as a were-house. She didn’t think anybody could be unsettled by a were-house.
It was very hard to look at Glorious and think of a cottage with white curtains.
“Is Glorious—um—a usual sort of name for wolves?” asked Summer timidly.
“Yes,” said the wolf. “My sister is Strong and my brother is Splendid. We call ourselves what we are, or wish to be, or could be again.” He shook his head, and his fur stood out in a ragged corona. “Now. Speak to me of crones, Summer-cub.”
So she told him the whole story, about the saints and the sad Frog Tree and the Wheymaster and Grub. At the end he asked her only one question: “How did Baba Yaga smell?”
“A little like you,” she whispered. “And a little like an herb garden, and a little like bleach.”
The weasel came out on her shoulder and said, “Like—” and chittered a long, chattering passage in the language of weasels.
The wolf listened gravely. Then he nodded.
“That is a true story,” he said. “My people know her well.”
They had gone on for quite some time, and neither Summer nor Reginald quite wanted to ask if Glorious planned to accompany them until night-fall.
Finally the weasel did it for them. “Well?” he asked, standing on Summer’s shoulder and looking down at the wolf (but only a little way down). “You are walking along with us instead of tearing off into the woods, and you’ve heard our story. What do you mean to do about it?”
Glorious grinned. “I mean to walk with you until I am out of these woods with the house-hunters about. I am quite helpless at night, but a hunter will not take a house with people already in it. And in return—well. If we should encounter this ‘Grub’ person, or this ‘Houndbreaker’—” he pronounced the name with exaggerated care “—he will find, I think, that wolves are not broken so easily as hounds.”